AuthorCafé Connect: Donning multiple hats

A scientist who gets stopped by school children for autographs, Dr Karishma Kaushik, MBBS, MD, PhD, is the co-founder of Talk to a Scientist (TTAS), a unique science communication and outreach platform that brings scientists and young minds together.


She has had a versatile career, as one can gauge from the degrees suffixing her name—and more on that at the end of this article! Her love for Biology in school propelled her to do an MBBS. During her MD in clinical microbiology at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, she had the opportunity to research the genetic profile of clinical strains of chicken-pox, which led to publications and awards as well.

Wanting to gain formal research training, she went on to pursue a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. She returned to India as a Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow at Savitribai Phule Pune University, where her group studied complex infection states, such as biofilms, to better understand them and potentially develop composite infection treatments.

We met her when she and her team were surrounded by at least 15 school children at the India Science Festival 2023. Amidst the buzz of conversation around “biofilms”, “microbes”, and “antibiotic resistance”, we approached her, said “hi” and asked if we could talk to the scientist…! And that’s how we connected with her, and after a few email exchanges, we got a chance to have this chat!

See, at AuthorCafé, we operate with a mission to empower the research community and appreciate their dedication to pushing the boundaries of human knowledge! And, we knew this conversation with Dr Kaushik will definitely go the distance in inspiring young scientists in the country and enlighten us with a renewed perspective on the lives of researchers.

Learnings from a PhD

Dr Kaushik was already a doctor (a medical doctor by degree) when she started her PhD at the age of 29, in a newly established research group. A non-traditional PhD candidate, Dr Kaushik had her son during the second year of her PhD. This brought on an elevated sense of personal and professional responsibility, and learnings related to efficient work planning, compartmentalisation, and work-life balance. Looking back, she jokingly says, “I only know how to do a PhD with a child!”

“While learning hard skills is imperative to the PhD experience, beyond-the-bench skills such as time management, building peer relationships, and networking should no longer be considered ‘soft’ skills as they are absolutely essential to building a successful career post-PhD.” Dr Kaushik
The multi-tasking responsibilities of an independent investigator

In several ways, learning to balance two huge commitments on the professional and personal fronts during her PhD, set Dr. Kaushik up for the next stage in her career. In her own words, “As an independent investigator, running a research group is much beyond bench work. The last five years have seen me building multiple projects, starting collaborations, writing and managing grants, writing papers, doing revision experiments, planning conference visits and hosting conferences, showcasing my work to the academic community and public at large, procuring lab supplies, ordering equipment and handling payments, and mentoring the scholars!”

She candidly added, “Oh, it’s just now that I realise how many tasks I juggled at the same time, and what’s even more surprising is that academic scientists don’t get formally trained for most of this.” 

“It is only via practice that you learn to multitask effectively, and for me, the most important aspect to focus on in all of this was to generate a fulfilling and happy scientific experience for the whole team.” Dr Kaushik
Dr Kaushik with TTAS co-founder Snehal Kadam
Dr Kaushik with her students Nizam Shaikh (left) and Shreeya Mhade (right)
Mentoring students and scholars

Building a research group is not merely about publications but also about fostering well-trained researchers who are creative thinkers and problem solvers. 

“I prioritise the overall training of the team by ensuring they get ample opportunities to diversify their skillset—writing, communication, teaching, outreach, and conference visits. All of this widens their perspective and boosts their confidence.” Dr Kaushik

While it’s natural to translate our own learnings into praxis, it’s important to realise that everyone is built differently and that what worked for you may not work for everyone else. She acknowledges that depending on one’s skills and goals, allowing them the flexibility to self-actualise and grow always pays off well.

When asked how she compares her own PhD experience and now her mentoring experience, she added, “Mentors learn too! The model built around my own PhD experience worked well for me at that time. But, as a mentor, I learnt to recalibrate it as to what worked best for the researcher and team as a whole.” We both shared a good laugh about how academia leads us to extend scientific jargon (model and recalibrate) into our daily vocabulary!

Science is not a solo mission

Dr Kaushik herself has contributed to and benefitted from the communities she is a part of—spanning science communication, outreach, education, and young investigators’ communities. To give an example, a few years ago, she was a young investigator herself at the Young Investigators’ Meetingan IndiaBioscience initiative, and in subsequent meetings, she was invited for a mentor talk and panel discussion to share her learnings with the next groups of participating young researchers.

Through collaborations and community engagement, one can open doors that seemed shut, and explore opportunities that seemed far-fetched.

“As researchers, we cannot thrive just as soloists. Whether it is communicating research findings, seeking feedback, collaborating, or sharing resources, engaging with the community allows you to broaden your research practice and place your science as part of a collective pursuit.” Dr Kaushik
Research need not be recherché

Scientists are most often funded by public money, so why let research remain esoteric? Promoting scientific literacy, busting myths, and addressing societal challenges by communicating science in a way that the general public comprehends and appreciates is an essential part of the scientific enterprise. Plus, inspiring kids, who are the future of this world, to trust science and learn to apply scientific principles in everyday decisions is an important pillar of nation-building.

Talk to a Scientist, the passion project of Dr Kaushik and Snehal Kadam, was conceived with this mission, and it has hosted 100+ sessions over the last two years, where scientists discuss their research with 6–16-year-olds. 

“It’s amazing to see young minds ask questions and say things like ‘Who wants to be a princess when you can be a scientist…’ and ‘Can I become the Principal Scientific Advisor of India?’ These are the joyous moments that keep us going and assure us that we’re on the right track.” Dr Kaushik
A new hat awaits

Traversing a spectrum of roles—medical doctor, scientist, science communicator, and mom—Dr Karishma Kaushik is now foraying into a new role, where she will be even more closely engaged with the science ecosystem in India.

AuthorCafé wishes her all the best, and we look forward to collaborating with her in the future!


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